After struggling for decades to bring urban vitality to a civic center often derided for clearing out after dark, Los Angeles civic leaders Monday picked a New York developer to undertake a $1.2-billion transformation of downtown’s Grand Avenue.
The Related Cos., which recently built the twin-tower Time Warner Center in Manhattan, won the exclusive negotiating rights to develop a housing and retail project on four parcels of public land on Bunker Hill that city leaders said will be a centerpiece of downtown.
Many city and community leaders envision the project as the final piece in a 40-year effort to make Grand Avenue -- already home to landmarks such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Music Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels -- a vibrant boulevard of luxury housing, office towers and cultural institutions.
Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, who was instrumental in building MOCA and Disney Hall and is leading the effort to redevelop Grand Avenue, has spoken about making the avenue Los Angeles’ version of the famed Champs-Elysees in Paris.
But Related, which was selected over Cleveland-based developer Forest City largely on the strength of its ability to finance the project, has thus far given few indications what the ambitious development will look like.
There are no public designs. The source of some $300 million in financing for public improvements around the project has not been finalized.
And the company’s selection Monday by a joint city and county authority may only signal the beginning of what could be a lively and contentious debate over what urban renewal in 21st century Los Angeles should look like and who should pay for it.
“It is the project on the hill, the aspiration of every architect and developer, the promise of an elevated city on a hill ... it has the potential to make the city and downtown an enormous magnet,” said Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
“The cultural life of the area is important. It shouldn’t rise or fall strictly in terms of commerce. It shouldn’t just be another mall.”
On Monday, there were other words of caution from some who watch downtown development closely.
“Related is going to need to learn a lot about what L.A., and specifically downtown L.A., is in order to effectively create something that helps the rest of the city,” said Tom Gilmore, who is developing numerous lofts downtown.
“It’s about not trying to recreate some other city, I don’t care if we’re like New York or Paris or London. We should be the best expression of L.A.”
Brady Westwater, the outspoken head of the downtown neighborhood council, said Monday he is unconvinced that Related will be able to deliver the kind of distinctive development that reflects Los Angeles.
“They build malls,” Westwater said. “Why are we handing over the center of our city?”
The Grand Avenue project comes as other parts of downtown Los Angeles are also undergoing a renaissance.
Aging warehouses and office buildings, some abandoned for years, have been converted into luxury lofts catering to residents who want to cut their commutes and experience living in the central city.
Staples Center has enlivened downtown’s south end and spurred plans for the development of a massive new entertainment center around the sports venue.
And officials hope the opening last year of the landmark Disney Hall on Grand Avenue will have a similar effect on Bunker Hill, which until the early 1960s was a gritty neighborhood of residential hotels and aging Victorian houses before the city bulldozed it to make way for office towers.
The Grand Avenue project envisions the construction of 3.2 million square feet of housing, retail space, offices and a hotel on city and county land around the new Disney Hall.
Planners and civic leaders have talked about creating pedestrian malls, quirky stores and restaurants, a boutique hotel and a mix of housing that will bring families of all incomes to the top of Bunker Hill, which once was home to a vibrant, if poor, neighborhood of some 8,000 people.
Civic leaders also want to renovate the underused park on 16 acres that stretches down the hill from the Music Center to City Hall.
The company that civic leaders have entrusted to develop this vision is no stranger to urban development.
One of the biggest developers in the nation, Related recently completed the $1.7-billion Time Warner Center on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, which has become one of the most talked about urban development projects in the country.
Related has built mixed-use urban projects in suburban Reston, Va., and West Palm Beach, Fla., where it developed a $600-million complex of stores, offices and theaters.
In Los Angeles, the company is at work in Little Tokyo on a $31-million retail and apartment complex at 2nd Street and Central Avenue that will be finished next year.
It also is a partner in the $103-million, mixed-income Puebla del Sol housing development that replaced obsolete public housing in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
Kenneth A. Himmel, the company’s president of urban development and who will oversee the Grand Avenue project, said that although downtown Los Angeles has substantial office, arts and sports elements, it has not kept pace with other cities in retail, restaurant and entertainment offerings.
“It’s not just the magnitude of this project but the opportunity to bring together the city and the region,” said William Witte, a principal of the Related Cos. “We’re going to be listening as much as talking.... We don’t claim to have all the answers.”
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown Los Angeles and sits on the Grand Avenue Authority board that chose Related, was among several city leaders who said they were excited about Related’s qualifications.
“It’s so monumental,” Perry said the of the project. “You need to have a master developer who has the capacity to cross the finish line.”
The Grand Avenue Authority selected Related based on financial proposals that the development teams submitted but have not been released to the public because negotiations are still ongoing for a final development agreement.
At a public presentation in June, Related outlined a vision for Grand Avenue that it said might include a Cirque de Soleil attraction as well as themed restaurants. Missing from the development proposals were any designs, however.
Thom Mayne, whose Santa Monica-based firm Morphosis recently designed the mammoth, much-debated Caltrans building downtown, will be one of the Related team’s architects, along with David Childs, who has been involved with the design for Ground Zero in New York.
“Everything is open,” Mayne said, adding that more architects may be hired.
“It’s not a project where you have a fixed vision of what it’s going to be. Because it wasn’t a competition, we’re coming in absolutely clean of any preoccupations. It keeps us extremely flexible. We literally haven’t started.”
Also up in the air is how public improvements to Grand Avenue and the civic park stretching east of the Music Center will be paid for.
Urban historian and demographer Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the New American Foundation, wondered if there are better things to be done in downtown Los Angeles if the public is going to be asked to spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Maybe Grand Avenue doesn’t need to be so grand,” said Kotkin, adding that he is a strong supporter of downtown revitalization.
“You have a thriving garment district, a jewelry district, a vibrant Little Tokyo.... There are a lot of great things happening downtown organically. Why aren’t we focused on things that may not need as much money?”
The developers and civic officials plan to negotiate a final development agreement over the next several months. The final project will have to be approved by the Los Angeles City Council and county Board of Supervisors.
“It has huge expectations to meet,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who chairs the Grand Avenue Authority’s board. “The expectations may be too high.... But if it fails, it could hurt us all.”
Times staff writer Roger Vincent contributed to this report.